San Francisco 49ers alter franchise in bold deal with Miami Dolphins
By Randy Mueller
Special to FOX Sports
I finalized many trades during my three stops as an NFL general manager, and each time there was a sense of relief once I hung up the phone.
These are often big deals that alter the future of franchises, but I was never stressed or doubted our lane once we picked it. Trade compensation is derived from supply and demand – plus the confidence of the personalities making the deal – more than the infamous trade value chart, in my opinion.
Two bold deals rocked the NFL on Friday and reshaped the top of the 2021 draft.
I was only surprised by the timing of these two trades, not the boldness of the moves. You have to give to get in today’s NFL. The draft is five weeks away and teams are still sorting through an unprecedented deep pool of players available in free agency. Still, three general managers found the time to multi-task and shift gears into the next phase.
The Miami Dolphins made like a yo-yo in a good way, while the San Francisco 49ers gave up years of future draft capital to make a big-time move now. The Philadelphia Eagles made a trade that makes sense for the current state of their franchise, needing quantity over quality.
These Friday deals are only the first step in each team’s plan of execution. They still have to pick the right players. Even though they might have felt some relief today, there really wasn’t any celebrating.
However, I do think these three organizations now feel good about their long-term plans.
When you make moves like this before the end of March, it tells me these teams already have their top 10-15 players stacked and valued in this draft. They have a feel for the depth of the quality, regardless of position, that will be there in Round 1.
I don’t think you can grade or judge these deals until we can attach players to the picks. It’s a fact, some people identify and evaluate better than others so that will determine success or regret.
These kinds of moves are reflective of the confidence of the decision-makers in the front office and the overall strategy they've put in place for their teams.
Before a call was even made, these deals were discussed at length within the teams' inner circles. The GM is the one who has to be a deal-maker, however, because when you’re not on the clock, time is not necessarily of the essence. There is plenty of time to vet and think it through.
From the time you find a dance partner until you call the trade into the league office, the particulars usually become evident, and things tend to come together fairly fast.
Inexperienced GMs and those not currently comfortable in their roles would not make the kinds of deals we saw Friday.
I remember 24 years ago, in the last week of March 1997, being involved in something like this, and the timing and thinking were very similar to what the 49ers must have felt Friday.
When I was with the Seattle Seahawks, we hatched a deal to move up from the 11th pick to No. 3. We gave up a second and fourth-round pick to do it. The price of poker is much higher nowadays – as an almost identical trade in 2021 cost the Niners two future first-round picks and a third-rounder.
I don’t remember ever looking at a value chart nor having any doubt that the trade was the right thing to do. There was no emotion involved. In my mind, it was just the right thing for our football team, and we were all on the same page.
No other first-round picks were involved, so it was all about supply and demand, in my opinion. That year, we were the only team that was aggressively wanting to move up, and because of that, I think we got a pretty good deal. The Atlanta Falcons were desperately trying to trade down from the third spot, and I knew a trade would guarantee we got one of the top three players on our board.
I was actually fine with any of the three players we had listed. I remember telling ownership that we thought it was a six-player draft, and we wanted to cash all our chips in and get two big fish as opposed to three or four "maybes." We would have to move up to get the difference-makers we had identified.
We owned two first-round picks that year, but they were at Nos. 10 and 11, and that wasn’t going to get it done for us. Once ownership signed off on the extra cash it would cost us for signing bonuses, we moved forward.
Pulling the trigger on this first trade to move up to No. 3 was such a no-brainer for us that we were willing to make the deal early, with the draft still a month away – but it gave us one sure thing in the bank.
These are the kinds of strategy discussions teams all had for several weeks before Friday’s fireworks. These franchises have done their homework in order to know where the cards will fall and if they like the options they have.
In our case with the Seahawks in 1997, we eventually used the third overall pick in the draft on Ohio State cornerback Shawn Springs – which was exactly the way we thought the draft would fall. Springs started 88 games in Seattle (155 in his career) and made a Pro Bowl in 13 NFL seasons.
Later on Draft Day in April, we moved from 10th to sixth with our other first-round pick and took Hall of Fame offensive tackle Walter Jones. So, we ended up with two of the six players we wanted when the trade ideas were originated. The risks we took worked out pretty well, but that’s not always the case. And that's especially true when quarterbacks are involved, which will surely be the case this year.
The 49ers have made it fairly clear they want to grab their QB of the future. My guess is they think they will never be picking this high again, so they decided to go "all-in" right now and move up from No. 12 to No. 3.
Sometimes, timing and opportunity are what push these deals to happen, but the risk is forcing a deal where the players' values get distorted because of a dire need. That’s always a concern, so your evaluations must be RIGHT ON.
It has been my experience that the best draft choices come when you pick the best player, and it just happens to be at a position of need. One can’t reach to make this happen. Time will tell in the 49ers' case.
By reading the tea leaves in San Francisco, this move has either Ohio State quarterback Justin Fields or North Dakota State's Trey Lance destined for the Bay Area. I’m not believing the rumors about Alabama's Mac Jones going this high. I think Jones lacks some key ingredients, and I see flaws in my film study that likely will prevent him from going this high.
The Niners can’t just LIKE Fields or Lance. They must LOVE one of them. When you make a move like this, you have consensus in your front office and a lot of conviction in your evaulation.
Both of these QBs are more prospects than pros at this stage of their development. It makes sense to me that the 49ers have doubled down by saying behind the scenes that current quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo will be there for this season, the last of his current contract. That decision might have been partially determined by the lack of a trade market for Garopollo. GM John Lynch has definitely gauged this.
I don’t love either of the rookies in their present states, but I feel they both have extremely high ceilings – if they end up in the right system and are surrounded by the right teammates.
The Niners could always change course, but I love the idea of not playing the rookie in Year 1. I think they hedge their bet by keeping Garopollo in 2021. If he plays well and then signs with somebody else, the 49ers would then receive a compensatory pick in 2023, which might be more than what they have been offered right now.
Who knows, maybe San Francisco can now trade up a spot to No. 2 by making a deal with the New York Jets. Even after these moves Friday, I still think the Jets are operating from the power position with the second pick.
The Jets still have three-year veteran Sam Darnold as a chip, even if they end up selecting a QB with their first-round pick. I believe BYU's Zach Wilson is the most NFL-ready QB of the 2021 class, and the buzz from his pro day Friday will likely only solidify his spot high on the board.
Moving up to No. 3 this early gives the 49ers options, and they must be OK with their worst-case scenario, having considered them all.
The Dolphins' plans seem to be less evident, although if QBs dominate the early four picks, there is a chance that Miami gets the top-rated, non-QB on its board at No. 6. The move also signals that Miami is not yet ready to give up on Tua Tagovailoa and wants to see what the Alabama product can do in his second season, another year removed from the devastating leg injury he suffered in his final college season.
I do not think Miami was ever considering drafting a quarterback in 2021. The only option that would move the Dolphins off their commitment to Tua would be a Deshaun Watson deal, which I don't think is realistic. This move shows Miami feels the draft lays out with great value at the top, but it diminishes once you get outside the top 10. I’ve been in their shoes and understand it completely.
By landing at No. 6, in what looks like a QB top-heavy draft, Miami will likely get a player (non-QB) with the sixth pick that it likely would have taken at No. 3. So, the Dolphinis have gained additional capital and not given up a thing.
The Eagles really need everything as they begin a new era with a new coaching staff, so they are just acquiring extra picks as pieces for their rebuild. Landing an extra 2022 first-rounder will help jumpstart that process.
Philadelphia was not going to take a quarterback, either. In fact, the Eagles already have a QB project on their hands in Jalen Hurts, and they have to build an NFL roster around him to give him a chance to develop.
I think Philly bailed at the first chance it could. GM Howie Roseman likes to make deals, and this was an easy one for him to make.
With the seats at the poker table now shuffled, it will be even more intriguing to see how the final hand plays out in Cleveland on April 29.
Randy Mueller is the former general manager for the Seattle Seahawks, New Orleans Saints and Miami Dolphins. He spent more than 30 years working in NFL front offices as a talent evaluator. Follow him on Twitter or at muellerfootball.com.